Technically speaking, your brain is not a muscle. Rather, it’s an organ. But that doesn’t mean that the brain you’re born with is the brain you’re stuck with. Like going to the gym to improve your cardiovascular function or “get swole,” as the kids say, there are things you can do to improve your brain function as well. Continuing to learn, reading, working with numbers, conversing, and playing music have all been linked to improving brain function.
Improved brain function? That sounds great! Where do I sign?
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at some evidence to support such claims. Over the past two decades, numerous studies have been conducted to draw clear, direct links between different activities and brain function. One such study was conducted in Germany in 2002. Researchers from Heidelberg University compared the brains professional musicians, amateur musicians, and non-musicians to one another. The result: the brain of a musician is significantly different than the brain of a non-musician. More specifically, musicians have bigger brains, more grey matter, and a better-connected network of synapses.
Around that same time, additional studies were being conducted on this side of the Atlantic. Researchers at Harvard University delved into which brain functions performed better in musicians versus non-musicians. The conclusions drawn are truly eye-opening.
Auditory Skills & Processing
The first, and frankly most obvious, area where musicians excelled was with their auditory skills and processing. Generally, auditory skills are broken down into four separate categories:
- Auditory Awareness: the ability to detect sound, identify the source, and do so amidst background noise
- Auditory Discrimination: the ability to detect differences in sound and speech, including rate, intensity, pitch, etc
- Auditory Identification: the ability to assign meaning to sounds and speech as well as identify, blend, segment and manipulate structure
- Auditory Comprehension: the ability to understand and apply messaging, make sense of missing information, and retain information
Musicians excelled in all four areas of auditory processing. Part of musical training focuses on listening to sounds, identifying sounds, and making logical connections about which sounds should/could come next. The use of this section of the brain then has a carry-over effect to other walks of life, including speech and comprehension.
Other Brain Functions
Several other brain functions also operated better in the brain of a musician. Among those commonly found to be improved were:
- Working Memory: the cognitive system responsible for temporarily holding and processing information
- Cognitive Flexibility: the ability to think about multiple concepts simultaneously
- Spatial Coordination: the perception of the distance between objects relative to one another
It’s not a huge challenge to connect these brain functions and musical training. While reading music, one relies considerably on their working memory to mentally stay ahead of the music being played. This ensures a smooth performance. Meanwhile, the ability to play an instrument often requires multiple physical functions at once (for instance, playing the piano requires manipulating keys with both hands while operating pedals with your feet), while singing adds an extra function on top of the instrument. Finally, spatial coordination is utilized to find strings, keys, and other things while playing without looking.
Better Left Brain/Right Brain Connections
While some may argue against the left brain/right brain dominance dynamic, it’s still fact that separate hemispheres of the brain control different actions and thought processes. Thus, this conclusion is the one that may surprise people.
Music, art, and creativity are considered right-brain functions while math, science, and analytical thinking are left-brain functions. Yet, studies have found that musicians have a larger-than-average corpus callosum, which is the network of nerves responsible for transferring information between the two brain hemispheres. So, while playing music may not help you to solve that math problem, musicians have both sides of the brain operating together with better communication. In turn, perhaps the right brain can help to find a more creative solution than the left-brain, analytical thinking side would have come up with.
Music Can Help to Offset Negative Brain Impacts
We’ve all heard the phrase, “lose it or lose it.” While I’m certainly not implying that your brain is going to disappear if you don’t start tickling the ivories, I am suggesting that perhaps a regular workout for your brain will help you in all walks of life. There are several things scientifically proven to decrease grey matter in the brain, including television, video games and (temporarily) pregnancy. It’d be impossible to avoid all of the activities that have a negative impact on our brains. Instead, perhaps picking up a new activity, like playing music, can help you to offset some of those negatives.